Outtakes 2010: Little Ashes

FILM, Film Festivals
Further dispatches from the Outtakes Film Festival.

It’s almost hard to believe that three of the 20th Century’s most celebrated artists not only lived in the same city at the same time, but also shared deeply tempestuous relationships with each other. Little Ashes, set in 1920s Madrid, looks at when Salvador Dali, Federico García Lorca and Luis Buñuel were studying and making art together. Recently, the film has gained extra attention due to Twilight heartthrob Robert Pattinson’s casting in the moustached role of Salvador Dali. Reducing Little Ashes down to its star power would be a shame though—it’s a fascinating account of artistic friendship (and at times, romance), and of the period that would ultimately consume each artist in very different ways.

The film begins with a foppish Dali entering the hostel/art college where Buñuel (Matthew McNulty) and Lorca (Javier Beltran) study. Lorca was already established as a poet; Buñuel had a lot of theories but little to his name when it came to filmmaking. Dali, meanwhile, was a complete unknown—shy, awkward, and modest. An attraction soon develops between Buñuel and Lorca, sidelining their friendship with Buñuel (who is initially portrayed as a homophobe). The relationship inexorably affects the artists’ work—Dali overcompensates for his hang-ups by becoming more and more outlandish; Lorca’s poetry starts to take on the passion and revolution for which his words became beloved; Buñuel realises that he needs to get the hell out of Spain.

The narrative’s structural uncertainty is a major flaw, on the one hand overreaching to tell the emotional story behind Dali and Lorca’s relationship, while on the other insisting on due ‘objective’ reverence to the biographical details. Frequently a problem with biopics in general, it leads here to the inclusion of elements that feel either rushed or awkwardly placed. (Buñuel’s infamous Un Chien Andalou which he co-wrote with Dali is clumsily incorporated, and could have been removed altogether—even if Lorca was reportedly devastated, believing the film attacked him.) Rather, the film’s success is its depiction of Dali and Lorca’s central relationship, and could have simply focused on this alone. Dali’s reported fear of penetration (male or female) and sexual confusion contrasts sharply against Lorca’s more comfortable acceptance of himself, and Little Ashes gains its momentum from this tension between the two lovers. Given the relationship was the raison d’être for the film, it would have made sense to dedicate more screen time to it.

But this is by no means fatal. Well acted (some accent discrepancies aside), Pattinson proves he can do more than simply stare moodily at the camera. In particular, he captures the older, and by all accounts thoroughly disagreeable Dali, managing to ground the surrealist’s later persona in his earlier confusion. Lorca’s poetry fits neatly within the narrative, and the film largely avoids any melodramatic pitfalls. The camerawork and costumes are beautiful too, accentuating the raw emotions. Effective and moving, Little Ashes reveals the swirling emotions behind three iconic artists’ work.

Dir. Paul Morrison
UK/Spain, 2009; 112 minutes
The Outtakes Film Festival commences in Auckland, Rialto Newmarket, May 27-June 2; followed by Wellington, Paramount Theatre, June 3-9).